• working/reading

    I am reading through 'both ways' literature of Yolngu and non-Yolngu working their knowledge systems together. Alongside I am reading Lorraine Code's 2006 book Ecological Thinking. I am also browsing through blogs and discussions on knowledge work and community development.
  • About this Blog

    Here I post some of my work and thinking. It is a much harder task than I thought! It is an extension of my research on knowledge and difference connecting my experiences, reflections, formal written pieces, and hopefully friends and colleagues. As work and self cannot be separate this blog is both personal and intellectual. Comments are moderated because, while it is a site for collective work, it is not anonymous.
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  • September 2007
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“Do you want to see the beach?”

“Do you want to see the beach?”

Accepting this innocent invitation we drove down to main street to beach. Past the store, past the council officers. We parked on the high ridge from the which the grainy sand ran steeply, not into water but onto a long flat expanse of fine mud which finally slid into the sea. A deep channel separates the mud flat leading up a concrete ramp in line with the main road. We stood there and as scene began to impress itself as our eyes adjusted to the brightness. We were shaded by the big tamarind trees that line the beach here. They arrived generations ago, their seafaring companions from the island Sulawesi have long returned, but the seeds have grown roots and leaves all along the Australian north coast.

A few people sit in the shade of the large trees. Others mill around the council and a group of teenagers play volleyball in an open patch of ground. A pair walk along the beach, which is otherwise deserted in the heat of the afternoon. A large man, followed by a smaller women. We all converge on the concrete ramp. Shorts, sandals, hats, pale skin.

The woman we are with is a local teacher and begins the introductions. This soon develops into a conversation and then into long statements from the man seemingly trying to make himself a solid as the concrete ramp is this new environment. He raises one foot onto the ramp, knee bent. “The rubbish” he exclaims. “That is the first thing I noticed about this place. See all these people,” he says leaning forward on his knee, “they don’t do anything. Especially the youth. Look at them.” I follow his pointed finger. It is a Sunday afternoon, school holidays at that, and teenagers are playing volleyball. I return to the engagement we are now in and my eyes readjust. A man on a beach, leg up, momentarily paused in his progress up the slope. I half expect him to raise his pointing finger again and say “That is where will erect our quarters, the watchman will spend the night on eastern side of the rise.” All that is missing is his red coat with golden braids, his hat and his musket.

These people playing volley ball are Yolngu. The people who have lived here for countless generations. So are the people milling around the council building, the shore and those sitting nearby in the shade. Casting my eyes around, the man on the beach, the woman, myself, my partner and our guide the teacher are the only non-Yolngu.

The man is talking about a local leader who is apparently in full cooperation and understanding with the Government who has sent the man. The teacher prods. ‘But his children don’t go to school.’ This was clearly unwelcome and the engagement is faultering. “Look. I have been told about teachers” says the man’s lips. “Shut up, I’m the boss” says the man. His lips move again. “Some of you are close tot he community, but you don’t know what is going on. Nine in ten people don’t have jobs, more money is spent on coke and cigarettes than on food, one in ten children suffer from abuse, four in ten children don’t go to school, and most adults cannot read and write.” ‘These people’ I think. He knows them already. Nine in ten don’t work as hard as him. I can see thoughts moved across the face of the teacher, almost like flinches from the blows of the man’s neat list of facts. I imagine what they might be: ‘there are not jobs to be employed in, much food is not bought but caught from the sea for free, of course abuse is a problem as it is everywhere, if all children came to school there would not be enough classrooms nor teachers.’ “And what if people don’t like it?” asked the teacher, bringing the conversation to a climatic finale.

“I hold all the strings to all money in this place and everyone’s jobs. If someone doesn’t like it I’ll get rid of them.”

We hurry through some parting graces. My partner and I are both stunned. This is the new face of administration in indigenous communities. It’s not a regiment of young men, pale from sea sickness, shrinking in their uniforms with drooping buttons. It is a solid man, perhaps an ex-serviceman but of management rank and his wife. A navy blue t-shirt stretches around his slightly fat torso and a cap squeezes his head. His breast and forehead are blazoned in the corporate logos of the Australian Defence Force. She is dressed in outdoor-wear pastels. Their skin is pale from a Canberra winter.

The next day he is there again at the concrete ramp. In the shade now stands small group of young faces beaming out from under their floppy hats. Camo shirts tucked into camo pants, tucked into black boots not yet dirty. ‘Those people’ look o’. From the ramp we watch as large generators and storage containers are unloaded from a barge. Where forty or so children had been playing volleyball the previous afternoon, stands a large khaki tent. No children mill about of play there now.

I walk over to the youth centre and am glad to find the woman that works there inside. Finding a familiar face my partner and I don’t know where to begin telling of what we are seeing. But we are all seeing it, so what is there to say. “I guess there’s no more volleyball for a while” I comment. “They are the child health check tents”, the youth centre woman responds. “It is the only open space in town that is not owned by a particular family. They couldn’t put it anywhere else.” They could have it out of town I think as the disbelief tightens itself into the first knot of anger. Volleyball games and child health checks. Can there be no reconciliation? No, it is one or the other. But the two stay with me sink from my head to my stomach.

[From “Do you want to see the beach?”]